Are DIY Purifiers Still Cheap in the Long Run?

When I published tests of the DIY compared to the expensive machines, a couple people on Zhihu (China’s Quora) asked if you really save money in the long run with the DIY once you calculate the cost of changing the HEPA. After all, the IQ Air HEPA costs 1,782 RMB, … Read more

Is a 30 RMB HEPA Reliable?

After I published directions for how to make your own purifier, people asked me: “Which HEPAs should I use? Is this one trustworthy?”

That’s the type of question that makes a nerd like me happy because it means we need to get more data. So I ordered HEPAs from every manufacturer I could find, and I tested them all. After all the testing was done, I found I could ship the HEPAs that worked best for 80 RMB, which was cheaper than the 110 RMB HEPAs I was buying–quality and price!

Can HEPAs be even Cheaper? 

Later I found HEPAs for 20 RMB wholesale. I was excited. If HEPAs are that cheap, we can make the DIY even cheaper!

But the test data was terrible. These HEPAs weren’t anywhere close to getting 99% of particles, so I passed on them. If didn’t want to use it in my home, why would I want to ship them to other people?

A 99.97% HEPA for 30 RMB?

Thus I wasn’t surprised a couple weeks ago when I saw a store on Taobao selling HEPAs for 30 RMB and claiming that my HEPAs are 暴利 (aggressively overpriced). They claim that their HEPAs get 99.97% of particles, and if that’s true, maybe these were the holy grail of HEPAs I was looking for all along!

So I ordered two online and put them to the test. The first shock was seeing that it doesn’t have a frame:

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That makes it harder retain its shape, but it might still be effective without a frame, so I put it through the tests.

Air Outlet Test

First, I tested it by putting it on the Cannon and testing the air coming out of the HEPA with a Met One Aerocet 531S. (The Met One is useful because it has a pump to regulate airflow. In air outlet tests, the particle counter is sitting in a stream of air, so using a pump maintains constant readings.)

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The results weren’t pretty. Smart Air HEPAs got over 99.9% of particles, but the 30 RMB HEPA was below 90%–far below their claim of 99.97%.

Air Speed

But particle effectiveness isn’t everything. A HEPA in the 80% range might work better if it has better air flow. In that case, maybe the HEPA could process the air more times and clean the room air as well as a real HEPA.

To test that possibility, I put each HEPA on the Cannon and used a tool to measure air speed (fancy name “anemometer”). I placed the anemometer on the HEPA at four locations (left, right, top, bottom) and took the average air speed.

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Again, the results weren’t pretty. So not only was the 30 RMB HEPA getting far fewer particles, it was letting much less air through.

Conclusion

Quality HEPAs for 30 RMB are still a dream. They’re not useless, but using this 30 RMB HEPA would expose people to significantly more particles.

I still hold out hope that manufacturers will be able to innovate cheaper HEPAs without sacrificing quality, but I haven’t seen those HEPAs yet.

Is the Taobao Store Owner Being Dishonest? 

The 30 RMB HEPA store makes claims that their HEPAs get 99.97% of particles, and the data clearly contradicts that, so it’s tempting to think that they’re lying.

But are they? I don’t know what’s in their mind, but my guess is that they simply didn’t go through the hassle of buying a particle counter and testing the HEPAs. I suspect that half of what seems like dishonesty on Taobao is actually just sloppiness.

As usual, I’m posting the raw data below.

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Can DIY Air Purifiers Clean Large Rooms?

Can DIY air purifiers clean large rooms? Hundreds of hours of Smart Air tests have found that DIY air purifiers cut fine particulate, reduce smoke, remain effective over 200 days, and even capture chemicals like formaldehyde. But an important practical question is whether DIY purifiers are effective enough to purify large rooms.

DIY Air Purifier Search

To answer this question, I tested every fan I could find, as long as it had a flat front. I was looking for a fan that put out a lot of air.

After getting all the data, of one fan stood out above the rest. I called it “the Cannon.”

In Anna’s 15m2 Beijing bedroom, it crushed particulates. It removed 97% of the small .5 microns particles.

But how well can it do in larger rooms? Most companies estimate this using flow rate, but those calculations depend on how well houses are sealed and how dirty the air outside is. I wanted to know how well a DIY air purifier can clean under real-world conditions.

DIY Air Purifiers Clean Large Rooms: The Test

I tested the Cannon on its high setting six times in a 30.5m2 living room–a large, open space. To track pollution, I measured 0.5 and 2.5 micron particles using a Dylos laser particle counter. Each test lasted at least three hours.

DIY Air Purifiers Clean Large Rooms Test Setup

I calculated the percentage reduction in particles from the first hour to the last hour.

DIY Air Purifier Clean Large Rooms Test Cannon

Besides testing in a big space, this experiment extends the findings of the earlier room tests because:

1. These tests were run in the daytime. Several people have the intuition that pollution goes down at night because people are less active and fewer cars are on the road (but the data shows that intuition is false–PM2.5 pollution is worst in the middle of the night in Beijing).

 

2. These tests were run while people were moving around in the room and opening the door to the outside. This is more conservative than the nighttime tests because the Cannon has to fight influxes of outdoor air.

DIY Air Purifiers Clean Large Rooms Effectively

Over six tests, the Cannon removed 92% of .5 micron particles and 89% of 2.5 micron particles even with people moving around and opening doors.

In previous tests, 2.5 micron reductions were usually slightly larger than .5 micron reductions, so it’s a little surprising that the 2.5 micron reduction was 3% lower than the .5 micron reduction. My guess is that this is because people were moving in the room, and human movement affects the 2.5 micron readings much more than the .5 micron readings.

Bottom Line:

With a fan as strong as the Cannon, DIY air purifiers clean large rooms effectively, reducing 0.5 micron particles 92% on average.

Smart Air

As always, I’m posting the raw data and more details on the methods for fellow nerds below.

 

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Does Activated Carbon Really Work

Does Carbon Really Work?

Companies sell activated carbon filters (also called “charcoal filters”) to remove chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene, but does carbon really work? The Smart Air lab put real-world carbon filters to the test.

Who Needs Carbon Filters Anyway?

I wrote early on that my number one concern in China is particulate pollution. It’s on so many people’s minds that nowadays even the guy I buy kebabs from knows the word “PM2.5.”

China kebab chuanr

HEPAs do an amazing job at removing particulates, but particulates aren’t everything. Gases like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are so small that they slip through HEPAs. “VOC” is a big category, including things like benzene and formaldehyde. VOCs can cause cancer, throat irritation, dizziness, and other not-fun side effects.

VOCs Common Sources

And for homes that have VOCs problems, we’re supposed to use activated carbon filters. But do they actually work?

When I published the instructions for how to build your own purifier, I wasn’t comfortable recommending activated carbon because I hadn’t tested it, and I didn’t want to just trust what the big filter companies say. So this year, I set out on a journey to test whether carbon actually works.

Activated carbon granules

Put to The Test: Does Carbon Really Work?

I soon learned that gas testing is not easy. First off, “harmful gases” is not a natural category. You can buy a particle counter that will detect all particles of a certain size, but there is no detector that will detect all gases. Instead, you need one for each type of gas, and that is not cheap.

In this case, my scientific curiosity cost me $3,542 for this Industrial Scientific Ibrid MX6. It detects VOCs, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen dioxide. It uses a photo-ionization detector to measure VOCs from 0-2,000 parts per million with a resolution of .1.

Testing Activated Carbon MX6 Ibrid

Next, I needed a source of gas pollution. Interestingly enough, my apartment didn’t have enough VOCs to register on the MX6–nor did 8 other Beijing apartments I tested. (That speaks to whether purifier companies should scare people into thinking that everyone needs carbon.)

Because I didn’t have detectable VOCs in my home, I had to go out and find VOCs to pump into my room. I chose cigarettes because they are known to emit VOCs like benzene and formaldehyde.

In each test, I burned 3 Marlboro cigarettes in an enclosed 3.78 m2 porch. At the same time, I ran the Cannon on high for five tests with a composite carbon filter on the front:

image

I ran four control tests with a fan but no filter. That way the room still has air flow, but no carbon. The cigarettes burned out after about 15 minutes, and I left the fans on for another 30 minutes.

Results: Does Carbon Really Work?

Looking at the Cannon + carbon alone after the cigarette extinguished, the VOCs dropped. Here is the data from one test:

Activated carbon removes VOC gases

But maybe the VOCs would have just dissipated on their own? From there, we can zoom out to include the time the cigarette was burning and the test where we had just a fan (no filter). From there, it becomes clearer that the carbon was removing VOCs above and beyond just having a fan on.

Averaging across all of the tests, the VOCs reached a maximum of about 1 ppm while the carbon was on. Without the carbon, VOCs reached 1.5 ppm.

Activated Carbon VOC Test

After the cigarette burned out, the Cannon cleared the air of VOCs in just over 15 minutes on average. Without carbon, the air still had VOCs after 30 minutes.

Averaging over all of the tests, the carbon removed 38% of VOCs by the time the cigarettes burned out compared to the fan-only condition. The Cannon removed 68% after another 5 minutes and 100% by 20 minutes after the cigarettes burned out.

Carbon VOC Reduction Speed

Bottom Line: Do Carbon Filters Work?

Test data showed that activated carbon filters effectively removed VOC gases compared to just a fan alone. 

Smart Air

Thus, I’ve decided these filters are ready for game time. I’ve started shipping these tested carbon filters via our website and Taobao.

Activated Charcoal Filter

Does Everyone Need Carbon?

Does carbon really work? Yes. But does everyone need carbon? Purifier companies have a financial incentive to convince people to buy carbon filters. They make more money if they can scare people into buying carbon. But does everyone need carbon?

I don’t want to scare people into buying carbon. Why? In most homes, my MX6 detected zero VOCs. I only found VOCs in homes that had an obvious source of pollution such as remodeling or smoke. And in all of the places where the MX6 detected VOCs, I was able to notice a chemical smell. That makes sense, since lots of VOCs have noticeable smells, like benzenetoluene, and formaldehyde.

Now, I don’t want to say that VOCs are never a problem. Photo ionization detectors like the MX6 are not the most sensitive test type out there. I bet I’d pick up small amounts of VOCs if I sent air samples to a laboratory.

However, scientists have used fancier methods and found similar results. For example, scientists in Hong Kong tested homes and found that most non-smoking homes did not have un-safe levels of VOCs. We need more tests like this to be sure.

For now, I will not be using carbon in my home, but I think it is right for people whose homes have:

1. Recent remodeling

2. Recent painting

3. Smoking

4. Odors

5. Nearby sources of gas pollutants (such as living near a factory)

6. Symptoms such as inflammation and asthma

Do I Still Need The HEPA?

Yes. Carbon captures gas pollutants, not particulate pollution. I wouldn’t have even tested this, but Anna accidentally forgot to attach the HEPA and unknowingly ran a regular particulate room test with carbon only.

Activated Carbon Filter Versus Particulate Test

The results weren’t pretty–far below the 95% reduction with the added HEPA. Thus, I do not recommend using carbon only.

As always, I’m posting the raw data and more details on the methods for fellow nerds below.

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HEPA Longevity Test: 170 Days

When I started Smart Air, a lot of people asked me how long the HEPAs last. Several people criticized the DIY on Zhihu because they said you’d probably have to change the HEPA so often that it’d end up being more expensive than the expensive brands. At the time, I … Read more

Are All DIYs the Same? Poor Results from Huanwo Lantian

When I did my first experiments, several people told me not to publish the data. “Don’t give it away for free,” they told me. “Use it to make money!” I decided then that my main goal wasn’t to make money. I almost got tricked into paying $1,000 for clean air, and I wanted to help people avoid getting tricked too, so I published the data anyway.

 

Of course, publishing the instructions online has made it easy for people to copy the idea. The Huanwo Lantian (还我蓝天) was one of the first to follow in our footsteps, selling a DIY filter a few months back. They even use a screen capture of Smart Air co-founder Gus’s appearance on Chinese TV on their shop:

 

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I was curious to see how their filter works, so I decided to order one off of Taobao and put it to the test.

 

Now I’m in an awkward position because I found that their HEPA was not working nearly as well as my Smart Air HEPAs. It’s awkward because, if I publish the data, will people think I’m just trying to attack a competitor?

 

In the end, I think it’s better to publish the results and be honest about my conflict of interest. At the very least, I think people have an interest in knowing how well other DIYs work–especially when some of those websites use graphs that are lifted from my site, which can mislead people into thinking the test results are from their machines.

 

And as always, I’m publishing my raw data and testing methods at the end of this post, so fellow nerds can replicate my studies.

 

DIY Purifier Test Method

 

My collaborator Anna used the same methods as our earlier tests in her 15m2 room. Anna did five overnight tests with the same Dylos Pro particle counter, and I calculated effectiveness as the percent reduction of particles in the room air, averaging the last three hours (more info). Then I compared the results to my earlier tests in the same room.

 

Imitation DIY Purifier Results

 

The Huanwo Lantian DIY removed 21% fewer particles 0.5 microns and above and 11% less 2.5 micron particles than the Original DIY.

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Is It The Fan? 

 

The Huanwo Lantian fan is slightly smaller than the Smart Air Original, so one explanation could be that the fan is just moving less air. Anna tested that by strapping the Huanwo Lantian HEPA onto our Original fan.

 

Here’s what that test showed.

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There wasn’t much difference. With the new fan, it was getting 4% more 0.5 micron particles and 2% less 2.5 micron particles. Thus, the fan doesn’t seem to be the reason.

 

Is It The HEPA Filter?

 

The second possibility is that the Huanwo Lantian HEPA isn’t as good. Anna tested the HEPA by doing air outlet tests with a Met One GT-521, which measures down to 0.3 microns. Anna tested the air coming out of the HEPA for 10 seconds, and I averaged the results from three tests. (More details at the end of the post.)

 

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The Huanwo Lantian HEPA captured 7% fewer particles that the Smart Air HEPA. Thus, the major source of the poor performance of the Huanwo Lantian seems to be the quality of the filter.

 

Bottom Line:

In room tests, the Huanwo Lantian DIY removes 21% less particulate than the Original DIY, and the data suggests that the reason is that it uses a lower quality HEPA filter.

Smart Air

 

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Huanwo Lantian DIY purifier is making the room air cleaner. It demonstrates yet again that DIY air purifiers work. I’d rather have a Huanwo Lantian than nothing. But the results show that this DIY copycat is cutting corners by using cheap HEPAs.

As always, I’m posting the raw data and more detail on the methods for fellow nerds.

 

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How Long Do Smart Air HEPAs Last? At Least 90 Days

The most frequent question people ask me these days is: how long does the HEPA last? This question is important because replacement HEPAs are the biggest long-term cost of clean air. IQ Air charges $370 for its filters. So if you have to replace the HEPA every two weeks, the DIY might … Read more

Thomas First DIY Air Filter Setup

A New Way to Test Whether the DIY Works

So far, I’ve been testing air purifiers by taking a baseline measurement of particulate pollution in a room, and then turning on the purifier and testing whether the counts drop. I’ve used that method to test the DIY and more expensive machines.

DIY Purifier Test Mongolia PM2.5 Dylos

However, I recently bought a second laser particle counter, so my collaborator Gus suggested another method:

  1. Run one particle counter in the bedroom that has the purifier
  2. Run another particle counter in a different room that does NOT have a purifier.

Two Problems Solved

The benefit of this method is that the control room represents the counterfactual–what would have happened if we hadn’t turned on the air purifier. That can answer two types of “what if’s.”

1. Fluctuations in outdoor air pollution

If a northwest wind hits Beijing and makes the outdoor air a lot cleaner, we can separate the effect of the outdoor air fluctuations from the effect of the purifier. In that situation, my old method would artificially raise our estimates of effectiveness. Changes in outdoor air can also artificially lower our estimates of effectiveness if the outdoor air gets dirtier after we turn on the purifier.

In previous tests, I corrected for this by averaging over multiple tests. I also analyzed the data after removing days in which outdoor air pollution fluctuated a lot (for example, I do that sort of analysis in the extra nerd notes here).

But it’s always nice to use different types of tests to make sure an effect is real, so Gus did this experiment.

2. Particles settling in closed rooms

If you close a room, the particles–even really small particles–will slowly float down and settle out of the air.

 

Particle settling speed velocity

 

Thus, if we’re testing in a closed room at night, how do we know the purifier is causing the reduction, and not particle settling?

The Control Room Purifier Test

Gus set up one particle counter in his room and one in his kitchen: 1

He let the particle counters run for several hours, and then a timer turned on the Original DIY in his room. (The kitchen had no air purifier.) Here’s what happened:

DIY Purifier Test Control Room

The difference between the bedroom and the kitchen air quality can approximate the effect of the air purifier. It looks like Gus would have been breathing 16,000 of these 0.5 micron particles in the air in his bedroom if he hadn’t turned on his DIY purifier.

And it’s pretty clear that the kitchen air quality (where we don’t have a purifier running) is following outdoor air quality:

Indoor Air Pollution PM2.5 Versus Outdoors

(Be aware that I’m overlaying these two lines on the same graph, but the Y-axes are different. This is NOT saying that indoor air is as bad as outdoor air. Indoor air is usually cleaner than outdoor air.)

Conclusion

Similar to earlier tests, the double particle counter test shows that the DIY purifier is removing particulate pollution from the air.

As always, I’m including more details for fellow data nerds below.

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DIY air purifier effectiveness blueair iqair philipps cheap god air purifier

Directly Comparable Tests: DIY vs Blue Air

I’ve wanted to know for a long time whether DIY air purifiers are as effective as the Ferrari filters.

DIY Air Purifier Cheap

In an earlier post, I compared my data to the tests of Dr. Saint Cyr (whose excellent posts inspired me to look into filters in the first place). But I noted that the comparisons were far from perfect because:

  1. The rooms were different.
  2. The Cyr post did not specify how long the tests were (and that can make a big difference if you’re looking at times under an hour–see this time comparison).
  3. The Cyr post did not describe the particle counter or particle size.

How We Tested The Air Purifiers

But now I finally have directly comparable data! That’s because two kind souls donated a Blue Air 203/270E (3,600 RMB) and a Philips AC4072 (3, 000 RMB). That means I could finally test the DIY against expensive brands in the same room, for the same amount of time, with the same particle counter.

DIY Purifier Test Method PM2.5

To do that, Anna ran 11 overnight tests with the Blue Air and 9 tests with the Philips. As always, I calculated effectiveness as percent reduction in particulates from the room air. Anna tested the air before she turned on the air filter, and then set a Dylos DC1700 laser particle counter to take hourly measurements of the air in her 15m2 room.

DIY Air Purifier PM2.5 Test

Anna used the highest setting on each purifier. (I’m putting the original data and more details about the methods for fellow nerds at the end of this post.)

And (drumroll!) here are the results:

DIY Purifier Test BlueAir Philips IQ Air PM2.5

The Cannon removed as much particulate as the expensive machines. Not bad for 450 RMB!

Yet all four filters were making the room air significantly cleaner. For particles 2.5 microns and above, all four removed over 90%. For particles 0.5 microns and bigger, all four removed over 80%. I’m not the first person to say: All you need to significantly reduce the particulate pollution in your home is a simple HEPA filter.

Based on the data, here’s how much you’re paying for each percentage reduction in 0.5 micron particles:

Price versus Effectiveness DIY Air Purifier Philips Blueair

(And that’s not counting the cost of the exorbitantly priced replacement filters.)

Recently, a Chinese news article claimed air filter companies are making “falsely inflated profits.” That fits with this data showing that the Cannon removes as much particulate as the Blueair, yet costs about 10% per percentage of 0.5 micron reduction. Similarly, the Original DIY removes 4% less 2.5 micron particulate and 6% less 0.5 micron particulate than the Blueair on average, yet the Blue Air costs more than 16 times as much.

Bottom Line: Air Purifier Test

You can remove particulate pollution from the air in your home and pay far less than a Blueair or Philips

Smart Air

What About Gas Pollution?

Now, as I’ve said before, particulates are not everything. There are also gases like ozone and nitrogen dioxide (although I’m less concerned about those). Here’s how to know whether your home has serious gas pollution. If it does, tests show that activated carbon removes gases like formaldehyde and benzene.

Open Data and Methods

As always, I’m posting the original data and detailed methods for fellow nerds. Don’t believe me. Check out the data and decide for yourself.

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Smart Air is a social enterprise that creates simple, no-nonsense air purifiers and provides free education to protect people’s health from the effects of air pollution. We are proud to be the only certified B-Corp dedicated to fighting air pollution.